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Reflections on Boys' Champs Part 1 (1910-1931)

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Arnold Bertram, Contributor

These reflections aim to provide readers with a glimpse of the athletes who have made Boys' Champs the world's premier inter-secondary schools meet, locating their performances within the context of the prevailing standards in international track and field.

This first part covers the first 21 years of Champs, when the meet was a one-day affair with athletes completing heats and finals for all events between 12:30 p.m. and sunset. Sabina Park was then the premier venue, and when it was not available, the grounds of Melbourne and Kensington Cricket clubs were used.

N.W. Manley - the first of the great ones

In 1910, N.W. Manley established himself as the outstanding athlete at Champs by gaining 11 points from five events. In 1911, he was elected captain of the Jamaica College (JC) team and immediately took charge of the training of the juniors as he prepared to wrest the championship cup from Wolmer's. He led from the front by retaining the Class One championship and raising the level of his performance to new heights as he won five of the six events in which he competed, establishing new records in two.

His record of 10.0 seconds flat in the 100 yards was not broken until 1952, when Frank Hall of JC ran 9.9, and his 23.0 flat for the 220 yards remained on the record books until 1931, when H.A. McMorris equalled it. In 1912, he was Class One champion for the third consecutive year, and established a new record of 14.6 seconds in the 120 yards hurdles (3'3"), which was not broken until 1962, when Lyndie Headley Kingston College (KC) ran 14.5. Manley's six wins brought his medal tally at Champs to 12 firsts and five seconds with four records.

What made his performance even more remarkable is the fact that he did not turn to athletics until he was 16. Following the death of his father in 1904 and the consequent decline in family fortunes, Manley found life particularly challenging. In an effort to make ends meet, his mother withdrew him from Wolmer's and enrolled him for one year at Guanaboa Vale Elementary School. When the family fortunes improved, he was sent to Beckford and Smith, later winning a scholarship to Jamaica College in 1906 at age 13.

His early experiences, perhaps, explain why it took him three years to settle down at JC. By his own testimony, he became "the ringleader of a group of boys who defied discipline and set out to undermine authority". It was the death of his mother in 1909 that influenced his decision to turn over a new leaf and take sports and academics seriously. His Pauline conversion was reflected in the leadership qualities and pursuit of excellence which characterised his performance on the playing field and in the classroom.

The JC magazine of 1912 summed up his contribution to the school in his final three years: "Monitor; captain of football and athletics; vice-captain of cricket; secretary of the rifle club; candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship; excellent forward; unmatched in running, jumping and hurdling; very good bowler, good batsman, excellent shot; he excelled in all our athletics."

Indeed, it was in this period that we identify the future doyen of Jamaican nationalism. Sports can indeed "stiffen the backbone and exalt the heart".

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that N.W. should have gone to the 1912 Olympics with G.C. Foster as his coach. In both the 100 yards and the 120 yards hurdles his times could have earned him a place among the finalists in both events. Unfortunately, he never regained athletic form after leaving school. In 1914, a bout of typhoid fever almost took his life. In three weeks his weight dropped from 157 to 94 pounds.

Four years later, however, as a student at Oxford University, he made one last attempt to revive his athletic career. During training, he discovered that he had lost "the extra muscular snap that makes one a good runner or jumper".

In a letter to his future wife, he confided: "I've tried several things, but I am not there. Stamina, strength, speed and nervous energy, the four essentials for an athlete, have all deteriorated." He was still good enough to win the long jump and 120 yards hurdles.

Afterwards, in another letter, he revealed the extent to which he was a student of technique. "Hurdling is quite a science ... take three steps between each hurdle ... . Don't jump, take them with a rising stride, step over them. Only first-rate men manage that and a fast man who can literally take a hurdle in his stride by merely lifting, not jumping, will go close to being a record-breaker."

Norman Manley was indeed the first of the great ones to appear at Boys' Champs.

On the Heels of N.W.

In this period, three other Class One athletes followed closely on the heels of N.W. Manley. The first was S.H. Laing of Calabar, who, like Manley, won the Class One title for three successive years. In those three years, Laing scored 38.5 points out of the school's total of 56.5. In his final year, he became the first and only athlete to score points in seven events at Champs.

The second was Laing's successor, L.W. Foote (Cornwall), who in 1924 won the 220 and 440 yards and came second in the 100 yards. His tally of nine points was one below that of the Class One champion, F.A. Laing of Calabar. The following year, Foote swept all before him, winning the 100, 220 and 400 yards, and coming second in the long jump. His time of 52.6 seconds in the 440 yards broke Rudolph Burke's record.

The third was D.A. Junor, the star of the 1926 Munro team coached by Major T.B. Nicholson, which came to Champs confident in its ability to dethrone cup holders, St George's. Junor, by winning the 100 yards, the 220 yards, the long jump, the 120 yards hurdles, placing second in the pole vault and third in the cricket ball throw, gained 15 points and carried his school to victory.

Rudolph Burke - Might have been the greatest

Rudolph Burke entered Jamaica College in 1911, the year in which Norman Manley was at his best at Champs. Like Manley, Burke grew up on a farm and had the same extensive early physical conditioning gained from hours of walking or riding each day to perform farm chores. In 1915, he announced his arrival at Champs by winning not only the Class Two 100, 220 and 440 yards, but established records in all three, and for the only time in the history of Champs, ran faster times than the Class One winners of these events. His record in the 100 yards remained until Pat Swaby (Munro) edged out Ruddy Robinson in 1946.

The following year (1916), his first year in Class One, he established himself as the best-ever Class One athlete by winning the 100, 220 and 440 yards, long jump and the 120 yards hurdles. His time of 54.2 seconds in the 440 yards remained on the record books until another JC boy, H.L. Lindo, ran 54.0 in 1929. Unfortunately, Burke never ran at Champs again. Later that year, his father died, and this extremely talented athlete left school to take over the family property. The feats of this 16-year-old suggest that he might have gone on to become Jamaica's greatest schoolboy athlete.

While Burke's times as a 15-year-old placed him in a class by himself, there were two other Class Two athletes who were certainly as dominant. One was G.C. Tavares of St George's College, who carried his school to victory in 1925 by winning the 100, 220, 440 yards and the high jump. His time of 24.4 in the 220 yards lowered Rudolph Burke's record by .2 of a second. The other was Albert Frederick Washington Brown (KC), whose all-round performance in Class Two in 1929 exceeded those of both Tavares and Burke. Brown scored 14 of the 14.5 points gained by his school, with victories in the 100 and 220 yards, high jump, long jump and came second in 440 yards.

G.M. Graham and the Scottish Connection

G.M. Graham (Calabar) was born in Jamaica to Scottish parents. His father was the rector at Scott's Kirk. His performance at Champs brought back memories of another Jamaican-Scottish runner, A.R. Downer, whose exploits as a world-class sprinter in the last decade of the 19th century established Brand Jamaica in international track and field. In 1913, Graham emerged as the Class Three champion, and three years later, he was not only the Class Two champion but won the pole vault, an open event, as well. In 1917, his first year in Class One, he scored 16 points to win the title and in the process became the first athlete to win the title in all three classes.

Guy Graham's most remarkable victory that year was in the pole vault. When he cleared the bar at 10', he had eliminated all other competitors. He then asked that the bar be raised to 10'3'' (3.124m), which he cleared "with apparently even less effort, winning the unstinted applause of all the boys". For the record, the eighth-place finalist at the 1920 Olympics cleared 3.5m. G.M. Graham was again class champion in 1918, and before his final year in Class One, he unfortunately lost his life in a tragic accident.

E.C. Marsh and H.W. Myers - two world-class high jumpers

N.W. Manley, Rudolph Burke and G.M. Graham had established the ability of Jamaican schoolboys to compete at international standards in the sprints, the hurdles and the pole vault. Next, it was the turn of two other athletes - E.C. Marsh (JC) and H.W. Myers (Wolmer's) - to do the same in the high jump. Both won the event in Class One for three consecutive years.

The first of these to compete at Champs was E.C. Marsh, who in 1921, leapt 5'10.5" to break his previous record of 5'5". We can better appreciate the quality of his record jump in 1921 by comparing him to the fourth-place finalist in the 1920 Olympics, who jumped 1.8 metres. Marsh's 1921 jump translates to 1.79 metres. H.W. Myers (Wolmer's) jumped 5'11.5" (1.82m) in 1926 to break Marsh's record by one inch. Like Marsh, Myers was within striking distance of the eighth-place finalist of the 1924 Olympics, who cleared 1.83 metres.

G.C. Foster's coaching mission at Calabar

After he stopped running in 1915, G.C. began his career as a coach. His early efforts produced a line of national champions, including A.W. Jones and H. McDonald. In 1929, he played his last cricket match for Jamaica, and the following year, extended his coaching mission to Calabar High School. By then, he had developed a unique coaching style which integrated his own creative ideas with what he had learnt from the English coach, Harry Andrews. The medicine board was standard equipment for all his athletes, and his favourite exercises included 'hundred-ups' and 'running in a straight line'. Honey was the staple of his nutritional formula, and he used the time devoted to regular massages to prepare his athletes for competition.

Calabar had been running at Champs since 1913 but had never won the cup. Under G.C., the school won in 1930 and repeated that success for four consecutive years. The first of the Calabar stars to emerge under G.C. was H.A. McMorris, whose performance on the track brought back memories of Norman Manley, Rudolph Burke, L.W. Foote, D.A. Junor and two former Calabarians - S.H. and F.A. Laing. In 1929, McMorris had run second to H.L. Lindo (JC) in the 100 yards and W. Rhino (CC) in the 220 yards. In 1930, under G.C., McMorris won the 100, 220 and 440 yards to become Class One champion while leading the victorious Calabar team. McMorris was again Class One champion in 1931 as G.C. coached Calabar to its second consecutive victory.

Behaviour code

During the period, the headmasters successfully resisted the pressure of both present and past students to subordinate the discipline required by the education process to the winning of Champs. In this endeavour, they were strengthened by the entry of three additional headmasters who could be relied on to reinforce the primacy of Christian values inside and outside the classroom. They were the Reverend Ernest Price, Sam Brown and Bishop Percival Gibson, who came with the entry of Calabar (1913), Beckford and Smith (1927) and KC (1929) to Boys' Champs.

Their resolve was tested at the 1929 Champs, when the JC boys composed and sang the following ditty in celebration of H.L. Lindo's victory over H.A. McMorris of Calabar: "Lindo bought a bundle of grass and stuck it up McMorris' - ". The headmasters responded by sending a letter to the school deploring the fact "that school cries containing unseemly words had been used" and directed that "headmasters warn boys that conclusive evidence of unseemly behaviour may entail the exclusion of their school from the competition".

Arnold Bertram is the author of the forthcoming publication, 'Jamaica on the Track - The Making of a Superpower in Track and Field Athletics'. Comments may be sent to